Rocky ride for white knight of Chester

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NO ONE could accuse Chester City of being conventional. They have an American owner who thinks Bobby Charlton played for Scotland, no manager, three captains and a seemingly untiring zeal when it comes to giving foreigners a trial. Oh, and they are bottom of the Third Division.

NO ONE could accuse Chester City of being conventional. They have an American owner who thinks Bobby Charlton played for Scotland, no manager, three captains and a seemingly untiring zeal when it comes to giving foreigners a trial. Oh, and they are bottom of the Third Division.

At some places any one of the above would be enough to have supporters raging at the board, the chairman and anyone else with a modicum of responsibility but at Chester, the League position excepted, the above marks an improvement.

The nadir of Chester is dependent on your point of view. It could be June 1998 when North West Water arrived at the Deva Stadium intending to turn off the supply, a threat only averted when the then manager, Kevin Ratcliffe, took £5,000 from his own bank account to settle the bill. Or it could be last summer, when the club appeared to be going out of business.

Either way the club needed a white knight of any description, so an American whose knowledge of football appears to be sketchy at best was not to be scoffed at no matter how bizarre his decisions have been since. The new owner, Terry Smith, is a 41-year-old former wide receiver with the New England Patriots who once coached the Great Britain American football team.

Quoting visits to Chester Zoo as a reason for affection for the place, Smith bought the club on 20 July, less than three weeks before the season started, and since then the club has had stories emanating from it like water from a sieve.

The McCharlton blunder arrived when the Sunday Mirror tested the new man on his football knowledge, the three captains were appointed to look after the defence, midfield and attack respectively, and Ratcliffe departed after three games, citing interference from the new owner and endless trials for foreigners as his reasons. In his place came a coaching panel.

There is more. One trialist complained of being stranded in a car park when his services were not required, fan favourite Luke Beckett has been dropped after a reported dispute with Smith while last week's Chester Chronicle demanded: "Tell Us Who's Boss".

It all sounds like chaos but the Independent Supporters' Association is not battering at the door, partly because they are already inside with three directors appointed from their ranks. "Some things you are extremely happy with," Les Smith, the ISA's chairman, said, "others you are concerned about but, frankly, Terry Smith was the only option we had to save Chester City. He offered us a piece of the action, he put money on the table and the club would not be here today but for him, because there were no other credible buyers. The situation was desperate and we thought we might have played our last game in the Football League."

Smith (no relation) of the ISA agrees that the impression from afar may seem unusual, but argues it gives a false impression if the assumption is that club is being dismantled. Chester no longer lose £1,000 a day as they were doing under the previous owner, Mark Gutterman, and although the club are in the League's ejector-seat position, to an extent that is understandable.

Four players - David Flitcroft, Andy Crosby, Chris Priest and John Murphy - who were in their mid-20s, had played more than 450 League games between them and would have been the backbone of the side, left in the summer of discontent and those left are largely youngsters and loan signings. Smith, the owner now in charge of team affairs, will supplement these players with ubiquitous foreign imports.

So far only Goran Milosauljevic, a former Partizan Belgrade and Kaiserlautern player, has made it to the first team but a Canadian and a Trinidadian international are waiting in the wings until work permits arrive.

Terry Smith issued a statement last week "in response to media and supporter criticism", pointing out that four points from three games meant "things are definitely on the up".

He blamed Ratcliffe for the club's lowly position. "Due to the fact that Chester City lost all three games under the previous manager by a combined score of 8-0, those three big losses have caused Chester City to have still not have gotten [sic] out of the bottom spot."

Armed with a game-plan dossier that Smith produces for every match, Chester drew at second bottom York on Saturday and extended their run to five points from four games. The ISA are behind their owner no matter how bizarre he may seem. "You have to bear in mind that there was only two weeks to prepare for the season," Ian Smith said. "We didn't even get a kit until the day before we kicked off. Under the circumstances the club has done reasonably well. I don't want to be bottom of the League. I hate being there. But I rather be bottom after 10 games than 40. The next few weeks are going to be critical."

But what of the less than normal decisions from the new owner? "He has three captains but why not?" Ian Smith replied. "What can a centre-forward know about defending, for example? It's different, it's revolutionary and it might work. As the chief coach, Dave Fogg, said on the radio the other day he doesn't want three captains, he wants 11 out there.

"There is a future for Chester City that did not seem possible at one time. We're not happy with being bottom of the League but I believe Terry Smith is a winner and we have to give him a bit more time to judge whether his methods are right."

The end of the season will be the appropriate time and the jury will be swayed over whether Chester are still in the Football League. If they are, Terry Smith will be able to appoint as many captains and give trials to as many players as he likes. He could even design the new kit in Charlton tartan.

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